Hairless QR Codes

The six of you that faithfully read this blog may remember that last summer I traveled to New York and was inundated with QR codes and felt the need to share my disappointing experience at the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve thought a lot about QR codes since then, but didn’t feel compelled to write about them (there’s enough hyperbole being typed about them already) until a coworker sent me an interesting article from Shelly Bernstein, the Chief of Technology at the Brooklyn Museum. QR in the New Year? is worth a read if only to get a thoughtful story beyond the statistics and rationale for using QR codes.

Her results, much like my experiences as an end user, were mixed. She explains, “So, I think what we end up with is simply a project that isn’t an overwhelming success or failure.” That’s a pretty blah result and hardly a motivation to keep plugging away with the effort involved to manage information for the mobile market. So if her results were mediocre with a concerted effort to make them useful to the museum consumer, why are they being slapped on everything from rental cars to bald spots? Okay maybe not bald spots yet, but if Google Earth is looking to advertise, I’ve got a large available space. Call me.

I can just see the meeting right now.

“Hey Bob, what do you know about QR codes?”

“Not much, but I hear the kids love them as much as they love the Twitter.”

“Well, we don’t have a budget for it, but let’s slap a bunch of them on our marketing materials and have ‘em link back to the main page of our website. It’ll be great!”

Six months later they don’t understand why people aren’t scanning them.

A new article from BizReport explains how people are interacting with QR codes and they found the following scan rates. “Newspapers and magazines are where most QR Codes are being found and scanned (35%) followed by on packages (18%) and on websites (13%). Surprisingly few were scanned from billboards (11%) or a piece of direct mail (11%).”

This makes sense to me, but the one I don’t get at all is the 13% that scanned on websites. If you are sitting at a desktop, laptop or using a tablet, why in the world would you whip out your mobile device to scan a QR code on a website to see a smaller version of where you already are? It would be like printing a tiny map on a highway sign. I don’t quite understand the logic there. When I was in New York City, I struggled getting a good angle to scan a billboard QR code, and if they were implemented on roads Burma Shave style, I’d be concerned about people accidently mowing down cows that have liberated themselves from an idyllic Midwestern pasture. According to Ad Age, some of the other interesting places QR codes have appeared are in the subway (with no cell reception) and on in-flight magazines where even Alec Baldwin isn’t allowed to have internet service to play Words with Friends. Finally, and possibly my favorite, MillerCoors teamed with some Seattle bars to allow patrons to scan a QR code and get a cab. While well meaning and a great experiment, the manual dexterity required to operate a smart phone was a little too much after a few frosty brews—which probably also explains why Apple keeps forgetting iPhone prototypes in bars.

The Ad Age piece continues to explain, “Experts cite three reasons that QR codes haven’t caught on. First, people are confused about how to scan them. Two, there’s little uniformity among the apps required to read them. Last, some who have tried the technology were dissuaded by codes that offer little useful information or simply redirect the user to the company’s website.”

I think the third part of this argument is the most compelling because people will eventually figure out the first one, and the second will shake out as the technology advances. If you want a QR code campaign to be successful it really needs to consider three factors. It needs to be optimized for mobile platforms. My Museum of Modern Art experience illustrates this. It was nice to have the QR codes, but I couldn’t get information to load on a Blackberry or iPhone because the landing page was too complex to be managed by most smartphones. QR codes should be used sparingly. Marketers should not just slap them on everything because that’s what the cool kids are doing. If all your advertising, products and collateral have a QR code that leads back to the main page of your website, not much is accomplished except annoying your potential customer. Which leads into my final point, QR codes need to have a purpose. Lead users to product reviews, or give us a coupon (but just one because how are we supposed to manage them all on a phone), or provide something of value. Make the pause required to pull out the phone, select the app, and wait for the camera to scan worth something. If the code provides value, people will keep using it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to wash this black Sharpie QR code off my bald spot.

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One Response to “Hairless QR Codes”

  1. @SkinnerWRX says:

    The best use of QR codes I’ve interacted with so far has simply been contact information which is automatically enetered into my smartphone as a new contact. If someone where to put that on a business card(I am)it will allow others to save time and effort. Similar simplistic ideas are in my opinion the only true valu of the QR code.

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